If anyone asked Kumbhakarna to name one contemporary Sri Lankan woman who qualifies to be called ‘great,’ he would unhesitatingly name the mother of Rizana Nafeek who was recently executed in Saudi Arabia for a crime she did not commit.
Why does this destitute, problem-ridden, utterly undistinguished woman from a very remote, backward part of the country deserve to be called that? Well, she had the incredible moral courage to turn down the compensation money of one million of rupees from a member of the Saudi royal family. Without going into comparisons with anybody’s list of great Lankan women, Kumbhakarna feels that this act by a bereaved, aging woman with a bedridden husband and two children to take care of makes her true mother courage. Bertolt Brecht could have written his play about her.
Very few people can say no to money. Everyone needs more of it. In the rich, this is the desire to get richer. In the less than rich and those who are actually poor, it’s due to the ever increasing, and bitter, struggle to survive. It’s hard to imagine someone living in a shack saying no to one million rupees. But this woman did it, because money doesn’t matter to her any more.
There’s a bitter lesson for all of us here, including those pontificating from pulpits and parliament (there’s little difference between the two) about the dignity of the poor and how they are working day and night to absolve poverty through unbelievably rapid development (the wonder of Asia). Well, one tangible, believable wonder of Asia lives below the poverty line in that shack in the desolate region of Mutur.
One might argue that it’s unfair to make such comparisons. People have ambitions, and these vary according to social status. We need to give the best schooling possible to our children, buy a car or keep the old one going, repair the leaking roof, put aside something for the future, have a holiday, afford private medical care, to care for ageing parents, or pay for an operation (indeed, for proper dental care these days if you want to hang on to your teeth), or to buy an antique armchair or a Doberman. All these are, at various levels, valid at reasons for having more money.
But, while comparisons between the financial needs of the poor, the rich and those in between may be unfair, it is equally unfair to argue that one social class needs more money, with greater urgency than the other. Indeed, if one were to make such a case, the poor have the greatest needs – to move from a shack to a proper home, from a bicycle to a motorcycle, from two meals or less a day to three, from no schooling to some sort of education, from hand-me-downs to proper clothes. Judging by that standard, Rizana Nafeek’s mother was in no position to say no to one million rupees. But she did, and that’s a lesson in morality for everyone, big or small, who has stepped into the glorious Lankan tradition of being bought over in the name of political expediency. “Money isn’t everything” is no more than an euphemism in daily life. This woman is living proof that it’s true, if only under extremely extenuating circumstances.
In the meantime, MP A. H. M. Azwar has stated that criminals, including rapists, could be deterred by convicted criminals if they were beheaded publicly on the Galle Face Green as mandated by Islamic Sharia law. That’s a backward Sri Lankan politician talking. If this were to happen, Kumbhakarna would be the first to jump on to a fishing trawler and flee to the nearest isle. These words shouldn’t be interpreted as a barrage against one backward politician who mentally lives in never-never land (in this case, the ideal of Sharia law). It’s a barrage against our entire, backward ruling elite who live in the past because the future makes them insecure. They can’t cope with progress. This is not the first time that public executions and torture(hanging, whipping etc) at the Galle Face has been proposed. The proponents should see You Tube videos of such barbaric punishments carried out elsewhere. Azwar should see that grisly video of Rizana Nafeeq’s execution. Someone who thinks that’s a civilized act has no moral right to represent a constituency anywhere.
Finally, the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the ‘dancing girl and the snake’ continues to titillate both the press and the public. She was found assaulted and unconsciousness by a roadside outside Colombo. According to her statement, her assailant was a Saudi Arabian with whom she’d been living together for some time.
From the public’s vantage point, this sensational development only goes to show that dancing girls who keep vicious snakes as pets come to no good in the end. Therefore, this latest development, her hard-fought battle to claim back her pet, removed from her by the police and handed over to the zoo on the pretext that it was ‘removed from its natural feeding patterns,’ loses whatever ethical as well as news value it had. It leaves her without a leg to stand on.
A Canadian study of cabaret dancers showed that theirs is a profession marked by social prejudice, personal disintegration and tragedy. Often, they are unsuccessful in love, have broken family backgrounds, are exploited and are prone to alcohol and drug abuse to counter loneliness and despair. Some commit suicide. It’s not a happy picture even though they are a legitimate fixture in the world of entertainment. That this description can fit a lot of people who are not night club dancers are totally ignored by a biased public.
In Sri Lanka, such a career means social ostracism to a high degree. To a disapproving public, even the choice of an Arab (and a Saudi to boot) as lover may seem like more fodder to the ‘I told you so’ stuff. But Kumbharkarna can only conclude by saying, while some people may be more prone to disaster than others, anyone (including a night club dancer),has the right to a lover of her choice (be it a Saudi) and whatever she chooses to be her pet (even if it’s a snake), even if both choices seem less than desirable to outsiders, who may be in a position to make ideal choices about life all the time.